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1991 Was An Eventful Year For Tech

In 1991, I experienced a world-changing event: Linux was released by Linus Torvalds, followed by FreeBSD three years later. That same year, the first version of vim was released and the world's first website was published. Intel's lock on the x86-architecture was broken, while ARM architecture became popular due to Texas Instruments and Nokia. Join me as I look back at this pivotal year in the home computer industry and the impact it had on the tech market.

Exploring the Impact of 1991 on the Home Computer Industry - A Look Back at a Pivotal Year for Tech

By Michael Levin

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Linux Released in 1991

1991 was an eventful year. First off Linux was released on September 17th, 1991 by Linux Torvalds, changing the world forever. FreeBSD, the version of Unix that would have invalidated Linux came out only 3 years later, and Linus said that had he known of the effort, he would have never developed Linux. Can you imagine? Would *nix OS dominance be what it is today if not for Linux adhering so diligently to the GNU2 license? I think not. Just goes to show how important timing and miscommunication can be.

vim Released in 1991

Also in 1991, the first version of vim, the (i)mproved version of the seminal Unix vi text editor written by Bill Joy and written into the standard of Unix was released. That original vi came out in 1976. I was 6 years-old. I think I can be forgiven for not having discovered it then. Fifteen years later, in 1991, Dutch Amiga freak Bram Moolenaar released the first version of a vim that came out on a public domain software disk (ye olde FOSS) Fred Fish #591.

I would not be forgiven for missing the 1991 vim release. However, I only just loaded it, kicked the tires and said “Hmmm, things are weird in the Unix world” and didn’t look at it again for another 18 years. For that, I can not be forgiven. But alas, here we are. I’m 13 years into using it. Malcolm Gladwell says it should take me 10 years or 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a skill (like using vim). I’m still waiting. Had I started in 1991 like I should have, maybe I’d know a thing or two about vim.

Commodore Released Nothing for Amiga in 1991

Much of my blind-spot woes that kept me from knowing a good technology when it bit me on the ass came from a blind love affair with my amiga. I mean, with The Amiga. The Amiga Computer, that is. I got my first one, the A1000, in 1988, so I was a Johnny Come Lately to this most amazing alien-technology inspired spacial anomaly that was Amiga. Not until the Raspberry Pi was there anything else nearly as love-worthy in tech, a thing which I identified the significance of and did the first YouTube unboxing and million-view video in 2012. But that’s another story.

By 1991, the Amiga’s death knell was sounding. The pitifully substandard Amiga 3000 came out in 1990. And the too-little-too-late Amiga 4000 came out in 1992. The significance of 1991 when it comes to the Amiga was cold winter leading to a confirmation that the Amiga’s future was being sacrificed on the alter of the past, in the way retargetable graphics for high-end cards like the frambuffer, and (University of) Lowell Card and GVP EGS Spectrum had to, and forever would remain hacks and not a formal part of the Amiga. Amiga stuck to bitplane graphics until its bitter end.

The Web Was Born in 1991 (and thus the demand for *nix)

Almost to emphasize how far behind Commodore was falling, the first website came out in 1991. The Internet was already around for awhile and I had my way onto it through dial-up into the CBM VAX (Commodore Business Machine’s VAX mainframe computer from Digital Equipment Corporation, a.k.a. DEC). Every computer company had that one guy who slept with their babies. Commodore’s was the beloved George Robbins, R.I.P. But in another kooky place of the same sort, but maybe x1000 was CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. A lot more people slept with the computers overnight there than at Commodore, and so in August of 1991, Tim Berners-Lee demonstrated just how far Amiga was behind by publishing the first website on Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer, which later became the basis for Mac’s move to being based on Unix. Therefore, 1991 also created infinite demand for more *nix-like computers because of The Web.

Intel’s Lock on x86-architecture Was Broken in 1991

The entire home computer industry of the sort the Commodore 64, RadioShack CoCo (and Tandy TRS-80), Coleco Adam, Timex Sinclair, Osborn and the popular Japanese MSX represented was made possible by wholesale ripping off of Intel and Motorola. Intel had the x86-architecture represented by the 8086, 80286 and 80386 chips, while Motorola had the 6800 line of chips. All these high-end chips were hundreds of dollars and priced them out of the home computer market. Luckily two companies, Zilog and MOS came along to reverse-engineer these expensive chips with the 6502 emulating Motorola and the Z80 emulating Intel’s chips, respectively. These sold for about $25 a pop (versus $250 apiece), and so Commodore bought MOS and IXYS bought Zilog and both lines sort of died by today because the Brits made ARM which fills all that niche today.

ARM architecture didn’t really hit anything interesting until Texas Instruments and Nokia started building it into their calculators and phones. AMD on the other hand hit tech like a tsunami in 1991 completely breaking Intel’s strangle-hold on the high-end x86 architecture. The home computer industry of the late 80s and mid 90s was basically over. Game consoles were back in fashion and all the money split between game consoles and the very high-end. Intel not to be outdone by AMD shifted the focus to the GHz race that turned PCs into environmentally hazardous coffee warmers. In other words, the 486 chip came out. Combined with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster card and ATI Wonder GPU-card, the x86 platform basically blew the Amiga out of the water. You could hear it in the above-mentioned Amiga death knell.